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Revamping Lincoln Heights Jail: What would your plan be for these 229,000 square-feet?

An archival photo of Lincoln Heights Jail.
An archival photo of Lincoln Heights Jail.
Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Cities have transformed warehouses, factories, waterfronts and hospitals — but prisons? That's the plan in Lincoln Heights, where you have through the end of the day Friday to submit your best idea for revamping the Lincoln Heights Jail.

Most people probably drive past the imposing art deco-style structure, now surrounded by fences, without giving it a second thought. For Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo — and many of his constituents in District 1 — it's 229,000-square-feet of prime real estate itching for redevelopment.

"It's one of the most asked questions I get whenever I am out and about," Cedillo said, "'What about the jail? What are you going to do with the jail? What's going to happen at the jail?'" 

An archival photo of Lincoln Heights Jail.
An archival photo of Lincoln Heights Jail.
Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

A little history

Opened in 1931, the five-story facility sits on an unmemorable stretch of Avenue 19, tucked between the L.A. River and the concrete rivers of the 5 and 110 freeways.

It has a storied history, holding locals who participated in the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 and the Watts Riots of 1965. According to internet legend, Al Capone was held here. OK, so that's probably not true, but in December 1927, Capone did visit L.A. — where he checked into the Biltmore Hotel under his favorite alias, "Al Brown."

It didn't fool authorities. The LAPD chief gave him 12 hours to scram, with officers escorting Capone and his retinue to the old Santa Fe train station.

By the early 1950s, the jail, which was built to hold 625 prisoners, was known to hold up to 2,800, according to the L.A. Conservancy. The prison was decommissioned in 1965, and the question of what to do with it has been up in the air ever since.

An archival photo of Lincoln Heights Jail.
An archival photo of Lincoln Heights Jail.
Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Reuse and revitalize

On March 31, the city opened a call for proposals for reusing the jail. Anyone can submit a concept — urban farm, live-work lofts, community clinic, eco-friendly office space — but don't expect it to be taken seriously if you ask for a $1-a-year lease for your experimental mime improv troupe.

"We want it to be an anchor for that area," Cedillo said. "We'd like somebody to come in with a big vision and a lot of utility for it. There's simple things, like gut it and turn it into parking or go and put another city department there. That's fine, but we hope we can get a lot more out of it."

An archival photo of Lincoln Heights Jail.
An archival photo of Lincoln Heights Jail.
Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

The councilman wants to revitalize that swath of Lincoln Heights, and he sees a revamped use of the jail as its anchor. Cedillo is in favor of turning it into sort of multi-use project.

"Let's look at the needs we have in our district and in the city," he said. "We have a need for housing. We have a need for economic development. We have a need for more convenient retail."

It's not going to be easy.

An archival photo of Lincoln Heights Jail.
An archival photo of Lincoln Heights Jail.
Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

What happens next?

After all the proposals are submitted, city planners will pore through them and select the top contenders, who will then be asked to submit a Request For Proposal — a more thorough plan explaining how they propose to realize their vision. After that, Cedillo says he'll solicit input from the community.

One major hurdle: Cleanup.

"There's both asbestos and lead," said senior planning deputy Gerald Gubatan. "It's a five-story property and floors two through five are contaminated." Cedillo mentions a figure of $35 million to $50 million for cleanup, but Gubatan said, "We don't have an exact cost. We have a consultant now evaluating the contamination."

An archival photo of Lincoln Heights Jail.
An archival photo of Lincoln Heights Jail.
Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

The upshot? Whatever your plan for revitalizing the vintage prison, it better have legs.

"We've got a city asset there that's underutilized — not underutilized, not utilized at all," Cedillo said. "And land is very precious in our district. So we're looking for an opportunity and we're looking for whatever ideas come for the district."

Let us know your ideas for what Lincoln Heights should do with the jail in the comments.